Santa Marta, surrounded by beaches and mountains, was the first city founded by the Spaniards in Colombia. Due to its cultural and historic importance, the historic center of Santa Marta was declared a national monument in the 1960’s. Five years ago it underwent a costly renovation and is proud to show off its new face and is best explored on foot.
The best place to start is from the center point of all towns in Colombia, the Simon Bolivar Plaza. The nearby Bank of Republic Library presently houses the Tayrona Gold Museum. Take time to see the displays of the fascinating gold pieces made centuries ago by the Tayrona indigenous group.
Construction of the white-washed Santa Marta Cathedral was completed towards the end of the 18th century. Some of the features of the cathedral are its dome-shaped bell tower, the floor plan in the shape of a cross, the main area’s vaulted ceiling and the side chapel marble screens.
Taganga is a sleepy fishing village and beach town near the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta and Tayrona National Parks. The view from Taganga’s coast is spectacular, as are the sunsets. The small town has just a few paved roads and the rest are dusty - or muddy – depending on the season.
Taganga is next to the stunning Tayrona National Park, though it’s a bit of a trek getting there. If you’re interested in visiting the beaches at Tayrona, it takes an hour by bus to get to the park, followed by a couple of hours of hiking through the national park to get to a beach. Another option is to get a boat directly from Taganga to the beaches of Tayrona.
Both diving and getting a diving certification are inexpensive, which draws diving enthusiasts to Taganga. Many of the activities that can be booked in Santa Marta can also be booked from Tayrona. This is the place to head out not only to The Lost City and Tayrona National Park, but also farther east to La Guajira.
Former Colombian football player Carlos Valderrama is known for his athletic ability and his outgoing personality, and this 22-foot-tall bronze statue of him in his hometown conveys both qualities. He is known as “El Pibe” or “the kid” and for his blond curly head of hair. His distinct personality has made him one of the most recognizable figures in football worldwide. Part of the Colombian national team in the 1990s, he represented Colombia in several international tournaments and became known for his skills in passing and accuracy in assisting. He is one of few foreign players who joined Major League Soccer in the United States.
His statue is the work of Colombian artist Amilkar Ariza, standing tall outside the Estadio Eduardo Santos in Santa Marta. It was erected in 2006 in honor of his contributions to Colombian national sports.
The coastal city of Cartagena is one of Columbia’s most-popular destinations. This fortress of a city was once the center of politics and economy. Today, remnants of this past draw visitors to its idyllic colonial streets, ornate cathedrals and beautiful beaches, making it a perfect destination for a day away from the ship.
A free shuttle bus transports passengers from the dock to exit gates where it’s easy to find taxis to Old Cartagena, about 25 minutes away. Get dropped at the Convention Center, since it’s easy to find most sites from here.
It’s easy to spend a day wandering the streets of Old Cartagena, where the city’s rich history comes alive. Explore the underground tunnels of the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas fortress or visit the unnerving Palacio de la Inquisition, where ancient tools of torture are on display. Then wander the streets of El Centro and San Diego where quaint homes, local restaurants and bustling cafes line the streets.
A striking reminder of Cartagena’s colonial heritage and standing proud at the heart of the historic district, Cartagena Cathedral (St Catherine of Alexandria Cathedral) is not only one of the city’s most notable landmarks, but one of Colombia’s most famous cathedrals. Dating back to 1577 and taking over 84 years to complete, the historic church is remarkably preserved, with recent renovations helping to restore its original features.
Today, the cathedral stands out thanks to its domed clock tower and bright yellow-painted façade, and makes a popular tourist attraction, as well as hosting daily services. Highlights of the cathedral include a series of exquisite frescos, an 18th-century gilded altar and a gleaming marble pulpit.
Opened in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the Americas, Cartagena's Naval Museum of the Caribbean tells the history of the city and its surrounding areas, as well as the story of how Panama became a separate country. Housed in what was once a Jesuit college, the whitewashed museum by the sea is easy to spot.
As you make your way round the exhibits, you'll see historic maps, ship tools, detailed model cityscapes, and model boats from throughout the centuries. And in the outer hall on the second floor, you'll get to see guns that have been salvaged from the seabed.
The history of Cartagena is immutably tied to its relationship with the sea, and the detailed texts on show at the Naval Museum of the Caribbean give a summary of 300 years of naval conflicts off the city’s shores. You'll learn all about the Spanish conquest of Colombia, and the later attempts of other European fleets to take Cartagena.
Barranquilla is one of Colombia’s most vibrant cities. The fourth largest city in the country, it is best known for its annual Carnival, second in size only to Rio de Janeiro’s. The event takes place four days prior to Ash Wednesday and has been recognized by UNESCO for its cultural significance.
The city is highly industrialized and is home to Colombia’s largest port due to its location on the delta of the Magdalena River. Barranquilla is also known for its active nightlife, from dancing and high-end clubs to smaller neighborhood bars. Other notable sights include the Teatro Amira de la Rosa, a beautiful building that is both a library and a museum, the Museum of Gold, and many Art Deco buildings scattered throughout the city. Many also visit the Bocas de Ceniza, the site where the Magdalena River and the Caribbean Sea meet.
For a tropical paradise experience, Playa Blanca is about as good as it gets. A short boat ride from El Rodadero beach on Santa Marta, this calm beach away from the larger concentrations of tourists is ideal for leisurely swimming as well as snorkeling and water sports like banana boats or mini diving classes.
Every day boats head out in the morning from the El Rodadero beach. The boat ride is a bit rough and fast but is an adventure to remember. There are no docks when you arrive at Playa Blanca, so be ready to jump from the boat.
Playa Blanca is set in a protected bay with mountains rising in the background. As its name suggests, the sandy beaches are white and are lined with palm trees. Thatched roof huts, ranging in size from individual to large buildings, line the beach. The smaller ones near the water are available to rent for the day, and don’t be afraid to haggle to get a good price.
Deep in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Park in northern Colombia, there is a green valley surrounded by mountains that is home to descendants of the Tayrona people, the Arhuac. Nabusimake is the spiritual center for the Arhuac people, the place where they say the sun was born.
Visiting this indigenous tribe in their own village is an adventure. The only road to get there is from Pueblo Bello, and is a rough trip even in the toughest off-road vehicle. The roads to get there are in bad shape, there are no signs indicating the way to the town, and there are no hotels for visitors. Strange as that may seem, it is no doubt partly due to the Arhuac’s lack of interested in having outside visitors in order to protect their culture and way of life.
But entering Nabusimake is stepping back in time to a different world. Walk around the peaceful village and see the variety of plants, flowers and birds.